He's called the greatest driver never to have won a Grand Prix race.
Le Mans and Daytona 24-hour race winner talks with PL.com about racing
He was considered by many as the greatest Formula One driver never to win a Grand Prix race. His name is Chris Amon. Born in New Zealand in 1943, Amon grew up on his family’s sheep farm in the Manawatu district of the north island. An 18-year-old Amon first caught the attention of English racing team owner Reg Parnell who was in the South Pacific country for the 1962 New Zealand Grand Prix. In a star-studded field which included such legendary names as Moss, Surtees, Brabham and McLaren, Parnell first noticed a talented rookie in a Maserati 250F who had started from 17th place and finished 11th on a rain-drenched track.
But it wasn’t until Amon expertly piloted a Cooper in the winter series, that his true talent shone through. Parnell was so impressed with Amon’s pace and skill, that he invited the promising young star to England to race for his squad in Europe.
Amon immediately showed his potential by equaling lap times of more established drivers at the 1963 Aintree 200 pre-season races. Such performances earned him a seat in his first Formula One car, a Climax V8-powered Lola. For the next three years, he drove for several teams and recorded some memorable podium finishes. But it wasn’t until 1966, that Amon’s name made it into the headlines. He had won the classic Le Mans 24-hours in a Gulf Ford GT40 Mark II with Bruce McLaren, having crossed the line in the now infamous 1-2-3 finish. When Enzo Ferrari invited Amon to Maranello and offered him a seat in late 1966, he didn’t have to think twice, and started racing alongside the likes of Lorenzo Bandini.
But fate played a hand to swiftly elevate the young driver to the team’s lead driver. “When I started at Ferrari in 1967, I was one of four drivers. Then several unfortunate things happened including the death of Bandini, and all of a sudden I was one of one and became the main driver. Looking back now, that was a huge responsibility for a 23 year-old driver,” remembered Amon. As the lead driver for the Ferrari team from 1967 through 1969, he showed superior pace on numerous occasions by fighting his way into the lead, only to fall back due to mechanical trouble.
Back in those days, drivers would represent their teams in some 40 or so races a year, and in different classes. “It was tough because you were virtually moving to another city every week.” But that is where Amon really shone, winning classics like the Monza 1000 km race, and Daytona 24-hour race.
"With the attrition rate we had in the 60’s,
F1 would have disappeared had safety not improved.”
Amon recalls that at around the time he was racing for Ferrari, Fiat was in the process of taking over the Maranello company, and in the 1969 season, the team suffered numerous mechanical failures and reliability problems. So he decided to leave Ferrari and look to other racing teams for employment. But in hindsight, he secretly wishes he could have stayed at least one more year.
“It was the biggest mistake of my life to leave Ferrari at the end of 1969. Because the following year, they found pace and started to improve. But truthfully speaking, I was very frustrated during the 1969 season because the cars were so slow and unreliable. But I have no regrets.”
Amon did record several strong podium finishes in his Ferrari, but never reached the highest step. “I should have won many GP’s, and in fact I was leading several times, but something always went wrong.” And in 1968, I could have won the championship, with a bit of luck.” But Amon says that the politics of the team was a little complicated back in the late 60’s due to the takeover by Fiat, and the team’s results suffered.
Looking at the unbeatable Ferrari F1 team of today, Amon says that he is constantly astonished at the reliability and pace of the team.
“I would have killed for their reliability in my day. They have such a well coordinated package that you have to admire them. And part of that success no doubt comes from the very talented people they have leading them.”
CHANGES NEEDED IN F1
"In my day, a driver’s skill had more to do
with winning than well-timed pit stops..."
But Amon admits that due to Ferrari’s unprecedented success, F1 is in fear of losing its charm and needs changes quickly. “Major changes I would like to see are mainly in aerodynamics and smaller engines. That would make it easier for drivers to pass each other. But these modifications must be done well to keep the cars balanced,” he stressed. He says that they need to slow the cars down and make them more competitive.
“For example, the way things are now, you have several drivers who are two to three seconds faster than everyone else. But with the way the cars are set up, especially with the current level of aerodynamics, if a slower driver doesn’t want to let you pass him, you can’t pass him. And that isn’t quite how it should be.” He recalls that racing was far more competitive in his day and that a driver’s skill had more to do with winning than well-timed pit stops.
“I’d also like to see all of the electronics disappear, especially the traction control. And there must be an alternative to one-lap qualifying. Because I don’t think it’s fully representative of a driver’s skill. I’d much rather see it based on more laps.” He’s right there. David Coulthard’s intense dislike of the one-lap qualifying is well documented.
As for safety, Amon thinks that F1 race cars have come about as far as they can with safety. “To see drivers crash at such high speeds and walk away was something you didn’t see in my day. With the attrition rate we had in the 60’s, F1 would have disappeared had safety not improved.” He should know. One of his co-drivers Bandini was killed in a crash and another driver lost both legs. And Amon himself was involved in several minor accidents but avoided major injury.
And what does he think of modern day hospitality and big budget sponsors? As for the current paddock area which includes huge expanses of space set aside for hospitality tents, champagne-swilling VIPs and gourmet meals, Amon is not impressed. He attended the 2004 Melbourne GP, his first time to a F1 race since retiring in 1976, and did not like what he saw. “I was amazed at the setup and extent of hospitality. We had nothing like that in my day. I don’t think I would have liked the atmosphere, because everything is for the sponsors and requires huge funds to manage it. But, the high cost structure could be supported if the racing was more interesting I think.”
AMON AFTER F1
After leaving Ferrari in 1969, Amon raced with several other F1 teams, with limited success. Many people may ask “how good was Chris Amon?” F1 watchers and racing commentators of the day all say he was very, very good. And he didn’t just show this in racing. As a tester and evaluator, he was one of the best. He was one of the first drivers who could give teams accurate feedback on how a car was performing. Once, in the lead-up to a Tasman Cup race, Amon pinpointed a problem in a car’s straight-line speed, and the cause was traced back to the airbox. Other anecdotes abound of Amon’s ability to know when a rear wing had been altered marginally or when downforce oriented body parts were not fully efficient. He was also a master at tyre testing, able to detect the slightest difference between different compounds and grip levels.
Amon quit racing in 1976 and returned to his family’s New Zealand farm. But this expertise in handling and evaluation was well known in the industry and in the 1983, Toyota New Zealand employed Amon as their chief evaluator, responsible for setting up Toyota suspension systems for the local market.
As a Toyota handling and evaluation expert, he says he would love to see Toyota fighting for the lead, “but that’s still a little while off I think. They will get there, no doubt.” He is impressed that Honda has found pace and is doing so well this year.
But after 20 years working for Toyota, Amon says that he is just about ready to hang up his driving gloves. “I’ve had a pretty busy life you know.”
Today, Chris lives near Lake Taupo in New Zealand with his wife Tish. At age 61, he says he wants to slow down and enjoy life. But for such a doer, could that be possible? He admits that he enjoyed driving a Camry in last year’s Targa New Zealand rally, his first race since retiring from F1 in 1976. “With ex-F1 commentator Murray Walker as my navigator, I had a ball.”
Today, Amon says he has no regrets. He raced
alongside some of the greatest F1 drivers of all time. And he raced for Ferrari, a time he will not soon forget.